It says something about progress in the Middle East that leading Islamist leaders in Iraq and Tunisia are crying out for democracy in their Muslim countries. Their public belief in individual freedoms and rights is a contemporary counterpoint to the hardening of Islamist rule in Iran and Afghanistan.
In Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an influential religious authority, has called on voters to cast off their apathy and “consciously and responsibly” vote in the crucial parliamentary elections on October 10, repeating previous parliaments and governments from them, “he said on September 29, referring to political leaders elected after the 2003 US-led invasion that established democracy in Iraq.
The election, he added, is the best way for Iraq to “have a hopefully better future than the past and avoid the risk of falling into the abyss of chaos and political stalemate”.
Although Mr. Sistani does not support any parties or candidates, he advised voters to elect a candidate in their district who “is the most honest who is interested in the sovereignty, security and prosperity of Iraq”. His reference to “sovereignty” can be a call to free Iraq from foreign influence, particularly that of Iran and the United States.
In Tunisia, where a democracy emerged during the Arab Spring in 2011, the leading Islamist party Ennahda has called for the reversal of the seizure of power by President Kais Saied. In July, the former law professor suspended parliament and seized almost all power, claiming the government was at a political deadlock. Although he promised his actions were temporary, he has since cracked down on the opposition and expanded his powers. Ennahda chairman Rached Ghannouchi, Tunisia’s leading Islamist politician and speaker of parliament, said the president had effectively repealed the constitution.
On September 29th, Ennahda called on all political and civil society groups to defend “representative democracy” through “all forms of peaceful struggle”. On October 1, police blocked dozens of MPs from entering the legislature.
Many people in the Middle East who live under authoritarian or strictly Islamic rulers are likely familiar with these hopeful demands for democracy by Islamist leaders in Iraq and Tunisia. Compatibility of democracy and Sharia (Islamic law) is not always easy. But at least two countries are showing glimmers of hope that bear watching.